As a self-described “child of World War II,” Stephen Berk said, “The war shapes the way I look at the world, the way I see evil, and the way I look at threats against Jews and other people.”
Berk is the Henry and Sally Schaffer Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies at Union College in Schenectady, NY. On Thursday, Sept. 6, he will speak at the Drew University Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study in Madison on “how knowledge about the Holocaust has changed in the past two decades.”
He shared his ideas with NJ Jewish News in an Aug. 27 phone interview.
NJJN: How has our knowledge of the Holocaust changed in the past 20 years?
Stephen Berk: Christian anti-Semitism created a fertile soil for the development of the Holocaust. But there is a more nuanced view of Hitler’s role in the Holocaust. We know he did not give any written order to exterminate the Jews. Not only did he apparently say to people like Himmler that “we’ve got to eliminate the Jews,” but it was clear to all of his subordinates that what he wanted was to eliminate the Jews. His rhetoric was ferocious. So Hitler’s subordinates created a saying: “Marching toward the fuehrer.” It meant “We know what our leader wants and we are going to exterminate the Jews.”
NJJN: How do we know this?
Berk: We know this by statements made at the Nuremberg Trials and afterward by high-ranking German officials. By 1938 we find this phenomenon. A very intricate system developed. “Not only will we march toward our fuehrer, but we have to do what he wants. We have to exterminate the Jews, and we will pursue this to advance our own careers and the institutions in which we serve. Various branches of the Third Reich will compete against each other to exterminate the Jews to gain the support of the fuehrer.”
NJJN: So Hitler didn’t say, “Go kill the Jews”?
Berk: He didn’t say, “Kill the Jews.” He said, “They must be eliminated from the face of the earth.”
NJJN: Was he also putting out similar messages about the Roma, the gays, and the others he considered undesirables? `
Berk: Not in the same way. There were many people that came under the Nazi gun. The gypsies and gays and lesbians — mainly gay men — and Poles and Slavs in general, and certainly black people. But the only group singled out for total extermination was the Jews. This is not to minimize the suffering of the gypsies or other people. During the war the Jews are the ultimate victims.
NJJN: What else have you learned?
Berk: We have a new idea of Jewish resistance. The obstacles confronting Jewish resistance were so great it is astonishing there was any Jewish resistance whatsoever. The living conditions in the ghettos were so bad that 20 percent of their residents were dead before the deportations.
We have known since the 1990s that Jewish survivor literature tells us about the hostility of some Poles. We must be careful not to make general statements here. Some Poles raped Jewish girls, collaborated with the Germans, and so on. We can even document that in some towns the Poles exterminated the Jewish population. There is also a whole new area concerning the Holocaust in the German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union. We are able to document where they took place and how the Germans harnessed the local population of Ukrainians into killing Jews.
NJJN: Have you learned any new information about the role of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII during World War II?
Berk: It is not that the Church did nothing to help the Jews. The Pope did send letters that may have saved some Jewish lives. But between 1933 and 1945 there is not a single statement from Pope Pius XI or Pope Pius XII condemning Nazi anti-Semitism or informing the world about what was being done to the Jews. Most significant of all, there is no statement from Pope Pius XII calling upon Christians all over the world to come to the defense of Jews. This is a transcendental case. It raises the issue of how do you resist evil when there is a price to pay for it. The Church would have suffered. There is no question of that. It may have meant an expropriation of Catholic churches and the ultimate horror, that the Nazis might have developed an independent German Catholic Church.
NJJN: What about the role of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and what he knew about the Holocaust?
Berk: We believe the British were informing FDR about the Holocaust as early as 1941. The first mass killing of the Jews took place after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941. We believe the British knew it and communicated it to him…. You cannot accuse the Roosevelt administration of being anti-Semitic. There is a fundamental asymmetry at work here.
One of the top three aims of the Third Reich was Judenrein, to make Europe free of Jews. But for those who wanted to save the Jews there were other issues — ending unemployment, getting the country out of the Depression…. Once the war begins, it is winning the war and getting the country out as cheaply and quickly as possible. People are not concerned about the Jews. Roosevelt had to confront a situation whereby he could never be accused of involving the United States in a war to save the Jews. This was a war to save the world from Nazism, the incarnation of evil.